In March 2001 public meetings
were held to address an anticipated $13 million Duluth school district
budget shortfall over the next two years.
A recommendation was made to close Birchwood, Chester Park, Lester
Park/Rockridge and Piedmont schools. Additionally, a six-period day was
recommended and standard grade configurations were presented.
In that planning process certain minimum sizes of schools were
recommended. These were 450 for elementary schools, 700 for middle schools
and 1,000 for high schools.
Community members were involved in this planning process. The public
was not involved in these discussions so a long-range community planning
event was held December of that year. It was recommended by the community
that three high schools be kept.
People in Duluth have been supportive of the school system when it has
been managed in a fiscally responsible way. Approval of excess levy money
was made to pay for specialists for music and art in the school; approval
was given to upgrade the athletic facilities.
However, the people of Duluth do not and will never support fiscally
imprudent actions by the school district. The school district is the only
public body that voters can affect by deciding when to spend money. With
that ability, the district needs to make sound financial decisions that
people can understand.
The current School Board has not made the decisions that have been
needed to address the funding shortfalls. Therefore, the current reaction
is to close a high school, which will save the most money the quickest.
It is because of the inadequate actions of the School Board, the
superintendent and others that this is being considered. Had they closed
the five elementary schools in 2001 and gone to a standard grade
configuration and a six-period day, what would be the district's budgetary
The School Board had asked the principals to develop different
scenarios; I assume this is based on a lack of confidence in the current
administration that they went to the principals to develop a plan. The
principals did develop plans and solicited various members of the
community to be involved in the process.
I was involved in the process and the principals did an excellent job
of defining savings and cuts. However, as a member of the steering
committee, there was no input from myself or others representing the
Chamber of Commerce. This was not reflected in the steering committee
reports to the board.
The scenarios presented were from the principals' group and that group
alone based upon the meetings I attended. The principals then presented
their recommendations in June, with a detailed timeline. In August of this
year they were told to accelerate the process to become more in line with
the superintendent's recommendation.
When community members have questioned the board, certain members of
the board have responded that we shouldn't have excess space. That is
true, and I would again ask why the recommendations made in March 2001
The only thing that has been done is to go from a seven-period day to a
six-period day in the high school.
As a business person and community member with children in the Duluth
schools, I expect that the district will be fiscally responsible, that
when they solicit input from the community, that they will listen to the
community because it is ultimately the community who will decide whether
there are to be additional funds to enhance the district.
The district administration along with the School Board needs to
provide detailed information as to the savings and the impact on students.
They have not done that.
It has been reported closing a high school will save a million dollars;
I am interested in how that can happen when it is then said that the
school will be a middle school in the future?
The district wants to create a unifying high school at an estimated
cost of $45 million to be accomplished in the 2008-10 timeline. This would
create a huge high school and add a tax burden that most people would not
If the district staff and School Board (most of whom will not be on the
board when this all occurs if the timeline is followed) believes the
community will support a $45 million referendum, why not ask for it now?
They can't ask for it now, because they have been fiscally
irresponsible and the public will not accept that the district will change
in the future.
If anyone ever takes the time to do the basic math, here are some
questions that need to be answered:
If the student population is 11,200 and there should be an average
class size of 30, that would correlate to needing 374 teachers. Now we
need to have support staff, but do we really need to have an additional
2,226 full- and part-time staff along with more than 1,000 community
If the 374 teachers cost the district $75,000 a year (which is high),
which equates to about $28 million, how is it the district budget is $79
million for staff and teachers?
The district's budget is$121 million and what is considered mandatory
and restricted in the budget is $26.8 million. When you add the required
cost for teachers at $28 million plus the mandated items of $26.8 million
you come up with $54.8 million. There are additional costs to running a
school district, but I am not sure that that cost is $66.2 million.
That is the question that needs to be answered, not which high school
to close, but who can lead the district in a fiscally responsible way that
keeps the high educational standards that we expect in Duluth.
DAVID JOHN SORENSEN, vice president of
Integrated Data Systems, is the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce
representative on the Vision 2007 Steering Committee.